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Gold Bugs

ISSUE:  Spring 1994

No one else remembers the gold bugs in Mexico but me. Not Willie, not Dad, and Mama’s dead. The memory, if it is a memory, came to me only after she died. Didn’t we, I asked Dad and Willie, didn’t we collect gold bugs in the evenings with Juana? Didn’t we break off twigs and leaves from the bushes behind our house and cram them in a mason jar to form a natural habitat? And then didn’t we pluck the golden lady bugs from those bushes like ripe berries and pop them into the jar? We spread our gritty little palms across the jar’s mouth so the bugs could not escape. I thought they were real gold the way they glittered in the pink twilight. We collected as many as we could, maybe 25 or 50 a night. When it got too dark to see, Juana screwed on the jar lid that we’d hammered full of holes, and took us inside for our baths and bed. We set the jar between us on the night table, and in the morning, first thing, we went outdoors to set them free. That’s what I remember, or think I remember, but no one else does.

One thing I know definitely happened, but I am the only one who remembers. Dad drove Willie and me to visit Mama at the Mexico City hospital.”Take them away from me,” she screamed as soon as she saw us.”I don’t want them to see me like this. Take them away.” She had on dark glasses, so dark you couldn’t see her eyes. Her face was red and swollen. Her thick auburn hair that she usually fixed in an elaborate chignon was tucked behind her ears, and it was heavy with grease. Dad held Willie in his arms. I clutched the hem of his Mexican shirt.”Take them away from me,” she kept screaming. We couldn’t move. We were pinned to the floor.”Take them away, take them away.” We stood in the glaring sun of the hospital terrace, paralyzed, with all the other patients and their families watching, as Mama backed away from us, screaming, and then she turned and ran into the dark mouth of the hospital. She did not come home for six more weeks.

From then on I often woke in the middle of the night to steal outside and down the hill to Juana’s room beneath the house. It was a cinder block cell with an iron cot and bars at the windows instead of glass. Over her bed Juana hung a wooden cross with a weeping Jesus fastened by big bolts in his hands and crossed feet. Bloody, weeping Jesuses were everywhere in Taxco, and I hardly took notice of them unless the blood looked authentic. Juana’s Jesus was dripping in gore. She lay beneath him in her slip, with a red and black reboso wrapped about her shoulders. When she heard me fumbling with her latch, she spread her arms and rewrapped her shawl around us both. We slept on the same pillow, and during the night lice from her hair crept into mine. I was afraid of scorpions but not lice. Juana was afraid she would be fired when my mother came home and discovered the lice. She secretly tried to pick my hair clean. Every morning before breakfast, she opened her door to let in the young blue light. I crouched at her feet and she crawled through my scalp with her fingers, crushing the tiny bugs between her fingernails and praying to Jesus. I believed Juana would find every bug, and Mama would let her live with us forever.

Thirty years later I can see Juana clearly. She was a village girl, only 12 years old, with long black hair that she wore in looped braids plaited with bright pink twists of woolen yarn. Her eyes were big and brown, and the iris bled a little into the albumen whites. She seemed tall to me like a grownup, but she played with us as if she too were a child. She always wore a rusty black dress except for fiesta days. Her teeth were blue-white, and she had dimples in her cheeks when she smiled. She spoke too softly for my father to hear. I had to repeat everything she said to him, translate and repeat. Juana taught Willie and me to speak Mexican. I, Karin, was six and Willie was three. She was hired to keep us from their studio while Dad and Mama painted.

We lived in a small house on the edge of a graceful old hacienda that the Tillmans, Marge and Garfield, had turned into a guest ranch. The hacienda’s pool was big and azure. On the shaded patio behind the pool were comfortable chairs and pink-and-orange hammocks. Waiters brought iced CocaColas to us when we asked. High walls screened two sides of the patio and pool, and they were covered with twisting branches of purple bougainvillea. If you looked straight across the pool, far past the bounds of the hacienda, you could see a stone mountain with a silver ribbon of water falling from a cleft at the top. Sometimes Juana took us for picnics at the base of the falls. Willie and I bathed naked in the cold rushing water while Juana washed her clothes, scrubbing them against the smooth, speckled rocks. For a long time, the colors were the only things of Mexico that I remembered: whitewashed walls, gray flagstone, purple bougainvillea, coral roof tiles, sapphire sky, silver waterfall, azure pool, the waiters’ starched white jackets, the bubbly blue glasses that held our Coca-Cola, Juana’s black dress and pink hair ribbons, the lime green bushes and high brown grass behind our house. And now I remember the gold lady bugs, shiny as my gold button earrings.

After Mama came home, we never saw her until lunchtime. She wore an armload of silver bracelets, and they crashed and chinked each time she raised her cigarette to her lips. By lunch she would have done her hair in its fancy twist and made up her face as beautifully as a movie star. We sat around a plain wooden table in the deep shade of the front porch. This was the ony meal we ate together as a family. Dad spent his mornings in the studio.”Look who’s finally up,” he’d say and kiss the top of Mama’s head. She took toast and orange juice and hot, strong coffee, while the rest of us ate the stews and salads our cook prepared.

“Do you remember,” Dad said to her almost every day, “that we came to Taxco to paint? Not to lie in bed half the day or stay up half the night.”

Mama would reply, “I don’t spend my afternoons in the hacienda bar or play 88 sets of badminton with Gar, do I? No, I stay in and paint.”

Sometimes, I now recall, Dad made a grab for Mama’s juice glass.”Don’t be stupid,” she said, and pulled the glass from his tense fingers.

I pretended not to see any of this. If I didn’t see it, it didn’t happen.

One afternoon, Dad pushed back his lunch plate and said, “Who wants to go to town this afternoon?”

“I do, I do,” I shouted. Mama winced. “Can Juana come too?”

“Not enough loafers staying at the hacienda for you this afternoon?” Mama asked.”You’ve got to go to town to meet your quota?”

“No, Juana may not come this afternoon. Just you and Willie.”

“But I like Juana to come.” She walked us through the back streets behind the cathedral to dark, sleepy little shops and bought us sugary death heads to eat.

“I believe I’ll come too,” Mama said.

“I thought you painted every afternoon.”

“I need a little local color.” To me Mama said, “Tell Juana to dress you and Willie for town. Karin, do you hear me? That means a pinafore and a barrette in your hair to keep it out of your face. How do you stand it, hair always falling in your eyes?” I was afraid she might touch my hair and find the lice and send Juana away. I abruptly pushed back my chair and called the instructions in Mexican to Juana. Mama watched me.”What a bossy little thing you are,” she said.

Paco’s Bar was on the second floor of a large whitewashed corner building. It was a dingy, smoky place until you made your way out to the balcony that overlooked the pink cathedral and the shady zocalo. People rose from their chairs when they saw us coming up the stairs. Men lightly kissed Mama’s cheeks, and women leaned across tables to be sure they would receive one of Dad’s kisses, He was tall and shining then. His eyes, his cheeks, his hair all gleamed with joy when he was with his friends.

“Join us, join us,” many people cried as we wove through the long barroom to the balcony.

“We can’t, we’ve got the kids today. They like to sit out in the air.”

“Who could blame them,” a woman we called “Aunt” Peggy said. The rest looked at Willie and me as if we were the greatest of nuisances. Did none of them have children? I cannot think of another American child in the whole town. Just wiry Mexican boys who pushed about us as if we were freaks or little gods, wanting to touch our hair and our shoes.

“Come out and sit with us,” Dad urged his friends. “It’ll just be us and the tourists if you don’t.”

There was some disagreement between Dad and Mama. The only table available was at the railing in the full sun. The glare hurt her eyes and scorched her skin. Dad steered us to the table anyway, saying the children got restless unless they could watch over the zócalo. Mama sent the waiter for newspaper, which she held above her head for shade.

Willie and I turned our chairs to face the railing. There was so much to see below. From where we sat, across the wide cobblestone street, the pink cathedral looked as if it were made of frosting. Tourists milled about its steps before they discovered the souvenir stalls at the end of the churchyard. On benches at the edge of the zócalo sat cobblers and shoeshine boys and cigarette peddlers. The shoeshine boys called to us, but we pretended not to hear them. We gazed at the women hurrying down the cobbled hill towards the market with their babies strapped to their chests in reboso cradles, at men in white cotton pants and shirts urging forward long-lashed burros loaded with kindling. I cannot be sure that everything I describe is an actual memory. What comes to mind are postcard photos and scenes from movies. I recall the heated, wavy distortion of the air, the grape smell of our Delaware Punch sodas, and the tall, narrow, sweating bottles we clutched until they were hot. Our knees fit through the railings. I see Willie’s and my bare, tanned legs and dusty sandals swinging through the black wrought iron. Behind us, as more and more friends gathered, the noise level rose. Fists pounded on the table, glasses were knocked together in toasts, waiters delivered new rounds with much clinking and clatter. I didn’t listen to what they said. I paid attention only to pitch and timbre. Dad spoke too loudly, and Mama said nothing at all. When I turned to look at her, I saw her sitting stiff and posed as a statue. She did not look like a mother. She was a queen, admired and courted by everyone around her, whose eyes were hidden behind dark glasses.

“You children must be so bored.” We looked up to see Aunt Peggy. She was much older than Mama and Dad, and she had lived in Taxco for more than 10 years. She owned a whitewashed house with six cats and a garden with a pretty tile fountain and a naked boy in its center. Her hair was wild and wiry, the color of rust. Her teeth clacked as she talked, and she wheezed slightly from asthma.”Come, why don’t we go down to the square and get an ice. It’ll be all right. I’ll fix it with your mother.” We squeezed through the thicket of chairs. Aunt Peggy whispered to Mama as we passed. Mama nodded once.

Aunt Peggy said something in Mexican to the shoeshine boys so they wouldn’t surround us, and she led us to the helado man. We each had a double cup. The ice smelled as sweet as a deep patch of honeysuckle. The helado man lazily fanned away the flies that swarmed about the lips of his big syrup jars.

“Aren’t you having one?” I asked Aunt Peggy.

“I’d rather watch you two children enjoy yourselves.”

We sat on a shady bench. She lifted up Willie beside her. As I slid into my seat at her other side, I looked down and saw that her legs did not reach the ground either. She wore black stockings, and her legs were soft and heavy, with folds at the ankles like a rag doll.

“I wish I had children as sweet as you. I never married, you know. I came here before the war, and I’ve stayed ever since. I’ve had my chances to marry, don’t think I haven’t.”

“You have pretty hair,” I said.

“Thank you, sweetie. So do you.” She reached out to stroke my hair, and I pulled away. The lice, she might find the lice.

“Your mother’s taught you well, I see. But I’m not a stranger. I’m your Aunt Peggy. Never mind, it’s all right.” She patted my hand, and I wished she would hold it instead of smoothing her skirt.

“How would you two like to come and stay with me? I have room in my little house for two pretty children. You might have to sleep with the cats, but they’re quiet except when they purr in your ear. Such a soothing sound. Purrrrrr. Purrrrrr.”

Willie dropped his ice and crawled up on Aunt Peggy’s lap. She took my hand and squeezed it. Her hand was hard and calloused from her sculpting. I squeezed back.

“I wish I could steal you away.” she said. “Take you far, far away, to China or to Burma. We’d live in a thatched hut and ride yaks. What do you think of that?”

I didn’t know what I thought. I didn’t know if I liked Aunt Peggy talking so sweetly. Something was wrong with her being kind to us. It meant we needed kindness. It meant we were lacking it.

She cuddled Willie. “Is your mother always so quiet?” She asked me.”Does she always sit so still and look so beautiful? Does she squeeze you and hug you every day, like this and like this?” She pressed me to her with a soft, warm arm. “Does she tell you what adorable children you are, how smart and how brave to live so far from home? Does she say, ‘I love you, Karin. I love you my little Will’?” She kissed us each on our noses. Willie laughed and kissed her back. Inside I felt like an avalanche was starting, and it would carry me away to some new place I’d never been. When Aunt Peggy let me loose, I leaped from her side. I was confused, frantic, and I began to run.”Karin, stop,” I heard, but I didn’t stop.

Around the edge of the zócalo I ran, dodging in and out of knots of gossiping old men and young girls with babies. I ground my teeth. No, no, no. What was I saying no to? No, no, no. Around and around, in an out, I ran. I had to run by Aunt Peggy’s bench again. She had set Willie down and was standing in my way. I easily ran wide of her. Faster, faster. I began to cry. No, no, no. There is nothing wrong with my mother. No, there is nothing wrong. Nothing wrong. Nothing wrong. Again I dodged Aunt Peggy. I saw her pick up Willie and run heavily towards Paco’s Bar. I couldn’t stop. People tried to catch me, but I ducked their outstretched hands. Around again, through patches of blinding sun and deep shade, which dazzled my eyes. No, no, no. Aunt Peggy was gone. Then I saw her beneath Paco’s balcony. My father was leaning over the railing, his hand cupped to his ear. I was tiring. My legs trembled. I couldn’t stop. Nothing wrong. Nothing wrong. No one tried to stop me any longer. The old men stretched out their arms to break my likely fall. As I reached Aunt Peggy’s bench again, I saw Dad jogging toward me with a crowd of shoeshine boys in his wake. I dizzily wheeled about. My eyes were blurry with tears. They wouldn’t catch me. Mustn’t catch me. I could outrun the truth. I stumbled and pitched forward. My forehead hit the corner decoration of an iron lamppost.

When I came to, I was cradled in Dad’s arms, and he was pleading with a taxi driver to take us to Dr. Huebner’s house. The driver didn’t want blood all over his back seat. Dad couldn’t understand him. One of the shoeshine boys stripped off his tattered shirt and tenderly pressed it to my forehead. The driver allowed us in his taxi, and then I don’t remember anything more except darkness.

Mama brought me my dinner on a tray that night. She said when the wound healed, we must do something to get rid of the lice. The doctor found them. Very embarrassing. She wasn’t sure they would allow me back in the United States with head lice. I listened meekly as she described how Juana would have to wash my hair with kerosene and her own as well.”I know that’s where you got them.”

“She didn’t mean to,” I said, head bowed. I didn’t dare beg her not to send Juana away for fear I would give her the idea.

“You’ve made me a nervous wreck today,” Mama said. “I don’t understand you at all, running away like that from poor old Aunt Peggy.” She was dressed for a dinner party, but she looked blotchy and uncertain. Her hand shook as she raised it to touch my bandages. I pulled her hand to my lips and kissed it fiercely. I kissed it again and again and again. “Don’t,” she cried, wrenching free and hurrying away. The room smelled of perfume and cigarettes and liquor after she had gone.

In a while Juana appeared with Willie, carrying the jar of gold bugs.”Pobrecita,” she said to me, “my poor little one,” but she was smiling because the secret of the lice was revealed and she had not been fired.”You must get better soon so I can begin to wash your hair. Look, I have already done my own.” She bent her head so I could see the clean white part in her dark hair.

“You stink,” I said.

“We will stink together.”

I did not sleep well that night. My head hurt, and I could not lie curled up on my side as I usually slept. All night long I was sure I heard the gold bugs moving around in their jar, munching the lime green leaves and banging against the lid, trying to escape. And I was sure I felt the lice crawling through my short brown hair, making nests, laying eggs, using my scalp as their natural habitat. I had never felt them before, but that night I thought I would go mad with their relentless locomotion.

In the morning, I rose early and took the mason jar outside. I was dizzy and shaky on my feet. I turned the jar upside down and shook out the bugs and the leaves. I denied myself the usual joy of watching them fly away free like a cloud of winking stars into the hazy blue dawn, and I did not chant, “Lady Bug, Lady Bug, fly away home.” The jar broke when I threw it far into the weeds. I returned to bed and waited stoically for the house to awaken. We never collected any more gold bugs. Juana taught us another game of looping long threads around giant beetles and letting them fly about our heads like birds on a leash.”They are angry.” she said. “That’s why they buzz so loudly.”

After my wound healed, leaving a pink scar on my scalp, Juana and I washed our hair every morning with dog soap and rinsed with kerosene, but the lice always returned. I did not get rid of them forever until a year later when we drove back to the United States and Dad went to a drug store in Laredo. They were gone after one treatment. I know this last is true without a doubt. And I know we went to see my mother in the Mexico City hospital, and she ran from us in shame. I hope the beautiful gold bugs were real, and their reappearance in my memory means I will again permit some richness in my life. My sentence is served. I could be free.


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